Helping refugees rebound, recover, and build a meaningful life
In 2019, Rwanda welcomed hundreds of asylum seekers, who had previously been living in Libya, to take shelter within its borders. Most of them had been en route to Europe, planning to try their hand at the dangerous sea crossing. They were seeking desperately to start a new life for their families.
When it was determined that these refugees would land at Gashora, known as an Emergency Transit Mechanism, the Alight Rwanda team was called to action. And knowing that these individuals and families had already faced extreme trauma and in many cases, abuse, Rwanda’s protection team jumped on board to help.
Protecting the Most Vulnerable
At the end of 2019, there were over 300 refugees and asylum seekers living in Gashora, and an astounding 156 of them were unaccompanied children—children who arrived without a guardian or family. These young people were of particular concern, as they’d faced tragic loss at unthinkable ages. They were forced to grow up much too soon.
The number one priority of the Alight’s team in Gashora is to make sure that these children and the most vulnerable people are provided for, helping to care for those who have experienced violence, sexual abuse, exploitation, and physical torture. The team provides case management and psychosocial support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and advocates for further support, as needed.
Children in Gashora often need extra attention. The Alight team has “matrons” and “patrons” working 24/7, people who act as unofficial guardians who look after the kids and come to assess their individual needs.
For kids, getting them active and working as a team can be such an important way both to help them gain some confidence, but to keep their minds off the past for a little while. Alight’s Protection team is focused on providing those opportunities for children and the general community, whether it’s through volleyball, football, indoor games, spaces dedicated particularly for little ones, or general gym activities. It’s all about helping these kids feel like kids again, remembering that they’re allowed to let go and have fun.
But young children aren’t the only ones who need extra guidance. Knowing that sometimes your peers can provide the most helpful insight, the Alight team has formed several support groups, for women, couples, and older youth to come together and participate in de-stressing activities. During their time together, they get a chance to know one another, take comfort in parallel experience, learn new skills, and take their minds off things for a while.
The team has also formed a special beauty group, where women can go to get their hair, makeup, and nails done. It’s a way to boost their spirits, to help them feel a little more human again.
“Many of these women have experienced abuse,” says Sylvie Nirere, Alight’s Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV )Protection Officer in Gashora. “So this is a way to help them feel that their body is important, that it’s not trash, that their body is beautiful. Before, they might have just stayed in their homes all day. This helps them to rebuild their self-esteem and become more integrated into the community.”
Building Trust, Breaking Down Barriers
One of the biggest challenges in Gashora is serving people from all over the region, most of whom speak different languages. People come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and South Sudan. The team must often use translators, which is also a particular challenge—not only is it difficult to speak about tough topics through a third party, that translator must be well-equipped to be respectful and sensitive to the victim’s needs. Since the team is all about building trust with their clients, they take great care to ensure that people feel safe and protected, always. Especially since many people have experienced betrayal by people they thought would help them before, like smugglers who promised to take them to Europe. They don’t easily trust people who show them kindness.
“When people arrive here their bodies and minds are disconnected from each other,” explains Sylvie. “We need to build their confidence, build the trust that they’ve lost, and connect their bodies and their minds again. It’s not an activity for one day or one week. It takes time.”
To help trust flourish within the community, Alight staff have trained community volunteers to prevent, recognize, and respond to issues of child protection and sexual and gender-based violence. They’ve formed two groups of volunteers, who have been equipped to help. Being surrounded by neighbors who they can turn to in times of greatest need only helps to instill confidence in the people around them.
The team also builds community amongst all who live in Gashora through cultural events—a time when everyone, from anywhere, can come together to show off what makes their culture special. Dance groups have formed, and when it’s their time to perform they invite anyone else to come and learn and dance with them. Everyone can enjoy the dance, and everyone has a moment to shine. It’s a way to speak to each other, without translators, in a language that is universal to all.
A Dedicated Team
People like Sylvie and her Alight colleagues have been at Gashora since the beginning, providing any possible support to help them overcome and move forward. Many refugees have already been resettled in Europe and Canada, and the team is dedicated to providing them that base for healing before they leave.
“I’m always motivated when it comes to children—when children are well protected, it means that the future of our world will be stronger,” says Sylvie. “When I help a person move from one step to another one, that’s my happiness, and my gratitude.”
Sylvie and her colleagues are also happy to provide an alternative to the grueling prospect of a trip across the sea to Europe. Although life can be a challenge and the future still uncertain, staff can rest a little easier knowing that they’ve helped people reach their goals without such a treacherous passage. They work to meet them where they are—their healing journey stars now.
Want to learn more?
Read more about all the incredible work that team Rwanda is up to, or get in touch with questions. And, to help refugees in Rwanda and beyond build lives filled with meaning and purpose, you can give here.